In this sermon preached at the Metropolitan Police Carol Service in Westminster December 17, the Archbishop of Canterbury retold the nativity story from the perspective of a Roman borough commander in Bethlehem.
Micah 5:2-5a • Isa. 11:1-9 • Luke 1:26-38 • Matt. 1:18-23 • John 1:1-14
For the borough commander of Bethlehem, the census ordered by the Emperor was a nightmare. For the Roman special branch overseeing Palestine — a bad area at the best of times in those days — it was the perfect storm.
The census meant that everyone had to go to their home city. Bethlehem was the home city for the descendants of David, king a thousand years before. So by definition everyone coming to Bethlehem to register for the census was a descendant of David; a potential rebel leader in an insecure province full of terrorists.
You were the borough commander, you had loads of new trouble from elsewhere, and in the crowd you could not keep tabs on the bad guys you knew about already.
Added to that, the local puppet ruler, Herod, was a murderous tyrant with more enemies than you could shake a stick at — including the relatives of those members of his family he had killed. Not a lot changes.
So the first rule for keeping security in Bethlehem was: no kings, no mention of kings, no mention of David. Anyone who shows up talking about David or kings was on their way.
To cap it all, there is a star, or comet, that shows up. Not so much unusual as unheard of — and your staff, a superstitious lot on a good day — are worried.
And now all you needed was shepherds to appear.
Shepherds were the biggest nuisance in public order terms. They lived out on the hills most of the time. They carried lots of weapons and could use them. They grazed sheep over everyone else’s land, and were prone to get stroppy if you argued. They were very poor and could not care less what people thought of them. They drank for Israel.
The second rule of keeping order was to keep the shepherds sober and on the hills, looking after their sheep by night, or day, or any other time.
So there you have it: a policing problem. Tension, politics, terrorists, crowds, parties, drunks and crooks, in a huge confusion of unknown people in your small borough. It can’t get worse. But like all things — as you know better than me — when it can’t get worse, it always does.
The shepherds do show up, and they are clearly drunk, except they seem stone-cold sober; but apparently semi-hysterical. Far from waving weapons, they are just waving their arms, going on about angels, and asking about newborn babies.
Eventually some clever officer in your force says he heard that a peasant girl had just given birth to a baby in a sort of cave behind the inn at the bottom of the hill.
So you send them there, and everyone checks their armour and weapons.
A few moments’ breather, and in walks this foreign character. Lousy accent. Just enough Greek to get by. He is the servant of some wise men from the east, and they have followed that wretched star that is upsetting everyone in order to find a king.
They get taken quietly outside so no one hears them, and then they get sent to the same inn. At least you can keep an eye on all the trouble in the same place. A squad gets sent down to isolate the area, and the sergeant comes back.
“It’s all quiet,” he says, “they’ve gone inside and they seem to be praying.”
The last straw: now we have a potential religious riot on the patch. Kings rumoured to be born? Herod will have my guts for that one. Shepherds! The local authorities will be all over me. And the paperwork …
So the poor borough commander went down to see this ‘king’. He buckled on his armour, sharpened his sword, prayed briefly and somewhat bad-temperedly to whatever god he believed in (or not) and went down to find … a peasant woman, a carpenter, and a baby.
Like most people in Bethlehem that night, he put the music in the air down to imagination, the shepherds to too many nights in the fields, the wise men to foreigners who were unpredictable anyway … and went away, because it all looked so normal that what it meant was overlooked by almost everyone. And still is.
Yet it was the moment in which God broke into our world in a completely different way. And everyone, including our mythical borough commander, missed the fact.
He came to his own people, and they did not even recognise him. Except for the few that were looking, and the ones that were totally unimportant, like shepherds.
The coming of God as human — as much a fact as you and I being in this building — was not in palaces with decent warning. It was in poverty, worse than most of us. In weakness and vulnerability. Indeed, more than that: like all babies, in helplessness. So helpless that a few months later the only way to avoid Herod’s secret police was to flee to Egypt as a refugee.
Why would God do that, be like that? Not for fun, let’s be clear. We all know — perhaps some even from experience, but anyone from observation — what rough sleeping is like, what suffering looks like, what sorrow feels like. There are some here tonight who know that more keenly than any of us.
God does it all from love. He takes up, by love, as little space as possible — the space a baby needs — leaving us all the choice in the world to ignore Him if we want to.
This baby, fully human, is also fully God. We can ignore him — or make space for him; and when we do that, like the shepherds, we find this baby fills our lives to past overflowing with the love of God. We find a presence invading our lives that is made of love.
He offers that, and gives us choice. He knows what we suffer, because He did too. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Every fault and failing, every joy and virtue.
So do we walk by like the busy little town of Bethlehem, far from still in a war-torn land? Or do we stop, and with a simple prayer make space in our hearts and lives? In the words of the old children’s hymn, “Come into my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you.”
Then we find not just the baby, but the man and the God, love surpassing expectation, utterly in control, with the promise of His presence, the comfort of His healing, the call of His purpose to make sense of any life on this earth.
Better sense than we could ever imagine.